AAUP Statement on Spellings Commission Report

Statement of the Committee on Government Relations, American Association of University Professors (AAUP), regarding the report A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U. S. Higher Education


The Commission on the Future of Higher Education appointed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has issued its report, after a year of hearings and deliberations. Although the report raises important issues and has been improved through successive drafts, it remains seriously flawed in its fundamental characterization of American higher education. As the preeminent voice speaking for faculty, and on the basis of its historic commitment to the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and higher education’s contribution to the common good, the American Association of University Professors must uphold a different vision of what American higher education has been and should be.

Principles of academic freedom and commitments to the common good are at the heart of the AAUP’s democratic vision of higher education. The AAUP affirms the central importance of higher education in enabling an informed citizenry to participate in civic and political life, the increasingly crucial role played by higher education in developing the knowledge and skills required for successful careers in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and the key role played by academic researchers in creating knowledge that has direct consequences for economic innovation and successful public policy. The AAUP affirms that the independence of scholars in their research and teaching is vital for democracy. For these reasons, the AAUP has long advocated public policies that make higher education fully accessible to all those who are qualified to benefit from it, that aim to improve the quality of higher education based on academic values, and that adequately fund research to stimulate the growth and dissemination of knowledge.

Evaluated against these principles, the AAUP finds that the Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s report falls far short. To be sure, a number of issues raised in the report appear to be in accord with AAUP principles and concerns. Commitments to “access to all qualified students in all life stages,” concerns with the preparation of high school students for college-level work, a focus on the burden of higher education costs on students and families in the face of lowered levels of government funding, affirmations of the value of innovation in teaching, and the importance of accountability and transparency are all in agreement with the AAUP’s principles. Yet the report locates these issues in a framework that portrays higher education in deep crisis without establishing the grounds for this claim. Based on what David Ward, president of the American Council of Higher Education and Commission member, has called “a false sense of crisis,” the report portrays higher education as in need of thorough and drastic transformation. The report largely neglects the role of the faculty, has a narrow economic focus, and views higher education as a single system rather than in its institutional diversity.

What emerges from the report is a vision of higher education as a marketplace that should increasingly rely on uniform standards to measure outcomes and technological means to provide training in skills necessary for global economic competition. The process and quality of the educational experience, so central to the formation of a love of learning, civic virtues and social capital, are marginalized to the point of irrelevance. As Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University pointed out recently in the Washington Post, leaders of higher education in Asia admire America’s colleges and universities for fostering “initiative, independence, resourcefulness, and collaboration.” Unlike the commission’s report, these Asian leaders view American higher education as worthy of emulation rather than as a project for retooling.

Central Themes in the Report

Central to the report is an assertion that American higher education, while still excellent, is out of step with contemporary realities. In comparison to student achievements realized in other nations, American education, including higher education, is losing its competitive edge. As a result, the report claims that we are in danger of a decline in human capital resources that poses serious dangers for the future economic competitiveness of the United States.

According to the report, American higher education, like any other “mature enterprise,” is “risk averse.” It faces the potential future of other such industries, “from railroads to manufacturers,” that have failed. What is needed are “aggressive steps” to make higher education more efficient, including “cost cutting and productivity improvements.” Among the suggested improvements are reducing barriers for transfer students, instituting performance benchmarks, and encouraging new educational providers including for-profit institutions and long distance learning. The report suggests that an emphasis on degree programs and a commitment to classroom-based education no longer meet our educational needs. In this vision, the masses of student “consumers” would be better served by a “cafeteria approach” that emphasizes the learning of skills and focuses on “results rather than academic distinctions.”

The report formulates a sense of crisis in almost purely financial and economic terms. This acute crisis demands drastic transformation, especially in terms of cost containment, accountability and transparency based on measurable outcomes. The report calls for a “value added approach” and incentives to make colleges and universities more accountable through better reporting practices that enable standardized comparisons. The crisis portrayed is one that demands intense managerial approaches to solve systemic dysfunctions through better measurement, market modeling and incentives, and institutional flexibility.

Faculty appear only once in this report, as a bullet under a heading that includes the recommendation that “higher education must change from a system primarily based on reputation to one based on performance.” The bullet provides a role for faculty in this performance-based vision: “Faculty must be at the forefront of defining educational objectives for students and developing meaningful, evidence-based measures of their progress toward these goals.” The role of the faculty is contextualized within a policy framework that aims at developing “interoperable outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policymakers, and the public, as well as for internal management and institutional improvement.”

Specific Weaknesses in the Report

The report bolsters its claims and its vision with a variety of symbolic flourishes. It uses terms like “world-class higher education system” without ever articulating its features other than through vaguely described goals. The report seeks to disarm potential critics by comparing them to elitists who resisted such historical initiatives as the GI Bill. It has a long and largely unsubstantiated preamble that calls for “urgent reform” without adequately characterizing the institutions and relationships that constitute American higher education.

By strongly affirming an outcomes-based approach, the report is dismissive of the institutional foundations of American higher education. The report makes no mention of the de-professionalization of the professoriate that is underway, with inadequately supported contingent faculty having an ever greater role in “content delivery.” Rather, it takes for granted that “new providers and new paradigms, from for-profit universities to distance learning” will be “part of the education landscape” that enables higher education to “adapt to a world altered by technology, changing demographics and globalization.” The report does not attempt to square this affirmation of technologically-driven change and indifference to issues of institutional life, structure and governance with its call for higher education to “recommit itself to its core public purposes.” It does not consider that “public purposes” are articulated, debated and made real within academic institutions that have stability and continuity.

While the report calls for consolidation of federal support for students and for an increasing emphasis on need-based support, including a significant increase in the buying power of Pell grants, it does not call for more federal funding to accomplish these goals. Nor does the report adequately confront the decline in support for higher education by state governments. Given these omissions, it appears that the report is calling for a redistribution of federal funding rather than for the increased levels of funding by federal and state governments that would be required to meet student needs.

The report focuses on what it blithely refers to as a “remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students.” It calls for creating a “consumer-friendly database” so that parents and students can compare institutions on “how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college than another.” Yet in its call the Commission ignores initiatives for assessment that accrediting bodies and campuses are already implementing across the country. It seems oblivious as to how its call for standardization could be formulated across the range of institutions and students that constitute American higher education, or the harm that such standardization would inflict on the diverse missions of our colleges and universities.

The report faults accreditation for its emphasis on resources, process and governance over an outcomes-based approach. Accreditation reviews, the report asserts, must be more “transparent” and should focus on “results and quality rather than dictating, for example, process, inputs, and governance which perpetuates current models and impedes innovation.” The institutional forms of higher education, the principle of shared academic governance, professional and academic relationships, and the centrality of academic community are dismissed as “impediments to innovation.” To be frank, this characterization ignores both the changes in the accreditation process that have already been underway for two decades and the historical foundations that produced the higher education system so highly prized both here at home and abroad.

Grounds for Future Discussion

Secretary Spellings and members of the commission have stated that their report should initiate a national dialogue on higher education. The AAUP, as a voice for all faculty, should be a full participant in this discussion. The future of higher education demands that state and federal governments provide adequate resources for students and for research; that the institutional integrity of higher education and the professoriate be recognized as core values for a society that venerates intellectual and academic freedom; that students be adequately prepared for success in higher education and that they not be burdened financially in ways that diminish their futures; and that higher education be held accountable in terms of its public purposes and multifaceted contributions to society. That is the discussion we must bring to the forefront, if our higher education system is to continue its vital role in our democratic society.

AAUP Testimony and Letters to the Commission

Letter from AAUP general secretary. April 14, 2006 Roger Bowen to commission about issue paper on college costs.

Testimony of Professor Edward Marth. February 7, 2006. University of Connecticut, at Boston commission meeting.

Testimony of Professor Galya Diment.  February 7, 2006. University of Washington, at Seattle commission meeting.  

Letter from AAUP general December 28, 2005. General secretary Roger Bowen to commission. 

Stories about the Commission in Academe: Bulletin of the AAUP

Federal Commission Issues Disappointing Report. November-December 2006. By Gwendolyn Bradley

I’ve Seen the Future. May-June 2006. By Mark F. Smith. Government Relations Column.

Federal Panel Paper Blames Faculty for High Costs. May-June 2006. By Gwen Bradley.  Nota Bene.

Testimony Given at Government Hearing. March-April 2006. By Gwen Bradley.

Government to Set Goals for Higher Education. January-February 2006. By Wendi Maloney.

Other Background Materials

The Flawed Metaphor of the Spellings Summit, Inside Higher Ed, 4/5/07
Explaining the Accreditation Debate, Inside Higher Ed, 3/29/07
Who's Who at the Spellings Summit, Inside Higher Ed, 3/20/07
Stacking the Deck?, Inside Higher Ed, 5/1/07

For a complete list of meetings, issue papers, and other commission activities, visit the commission’s website.